Where I live, one hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, the planet’s machinations transform my life into a frenzy of almost twenty-four hour daylight in the summer. In the winter, I blink myself awake in the dark and wait for the late sunrise and the three-and-a-half hours of low-slung rays to hit the south facing windows. Although Fairbanks has its share of strip malls and box stores, its latitude never lets us forget that we live on a spinning rock in the middle of the universe. That’s why I stay here.
When I first moved to Alaska, I lived in a 16 x 20 log cabin sans plumbing. I sat in the outhouse at forty below, rime frost falling from the cobwebs on the plywood ceiling, and imagined that I was in that box on the map. The one that said “You Are Here.” On the path outside, I would breathe in, amazed that my lungs could take the sting of air that cold, and feel grateful that I lived somewhere that wouldn’t let me forget that I lived somewhere. As the years went by, I got used to it. The day-to-day living in the Last Frontier consumed my awe of the place and I ceased to be constantly amazed.
Years ago, long after I arrived, but long before our girls were born, we drove past the Matanuska glacier on our way back from a fishing trip. It was huge, beautiful, pouring slowly off the mountain, white and eerie blue. I asked my then boyfriend, now husband, TJ, “Do you want to stop and see the glacier?” He replied, “No, I can see the glacier from here.” We laughed. We were filthy. Our mud-soaked jeans sported crisp spots of salmon blood. My hands hadn’t defrosted from hours of gutting salmon fresh from the 32 degree water. The car was warm and moving us toward home and showers. The glacier was like all the others we had seen. We didn’t have time or energy to gawk. If a sense of majesty is borne of unfamiliarity and distance, we had gotten too close to Alaska for our jaws to drop. We sped past the glacier, going airborne for a second over a frost heave and waving at the mountains as they flew by.
But everything’s different with kids. I don’t speed past anything any more. I’m barely able to get where I’m going, so I have to be where I am. And I am always with two little people who have never been there before. Their fresh eyes force me to take a second look at everything about this place that I’ve been taking for granted.
I still don’t stop for the glacier. It would involve unbuckling too many buckles, finding too many shoes. I rarely stop and stare at the big things because my girls are still too little to appreciate the big things: high peaks, carnivorous mammals, trips in float planes, the drama of extreme temperatures, or purple northern lights. Remote wilderness trips with kids are too dangerous or expensive and bedtime has to be too early. Instead, it’s the small things that matter — the stringy paths left by leaf miners on leaves they pick up on the trail or the moose who eats our jack o’ lantern every year. My view of nature is expanded through the magnifying glass of the girls’ eyes.
Their view has changed me. I don’t think about the map, the “You Are Here.” I haven’t had the chance to backpack Kesugi Ridge again and watch a grizzly watch me cook dinner just across the valley. I don’t have time to float the Forty Mile River to the Yukon through Canada and back into Alaska reading Moby Dick and drinking gin and tonics along the way. The outdoors and motherhood don’t meet in the broad stroke, the grand gestures — the things that lend Alaska its myth. They meet in the small steps along the trail that starts on the deck and goes through the yard before it heads out into the boreal woods. Woods, full of thin, looming birch trees reaching toward light. Woods, full of pink wild roses and moose, full of mushrooms and foxes, hoar frost and ravens so familiar that I had forgotten to look.
That’s what this column will do. It will head into the woods with two little girls. I will explore the intersection of motherhood and nature from the perspective of a mama who has learned to appreciate the small scale in Alaska, a place that prides itself on everything being so big.